Two recent commentaries on the recurrent question of American decline illustrate the warped terms of American self-conception, the consequent irrelevance of the declinism debate—and the ways in which America’s own political tradition might better inform our understanding of our power in the world.
In one, Harvard’s Joseph Nye argues with some persuasiveness that American power may or may not be fragile in absolute terms but that we are likely to remain ascendant in relative terms. However, we will be “‘first’ but not ‘sole’”: The likeliest scenario, he projects, is not the rise of another superpower like China but rather “the rise of the rest”—the emergence of a multipolar world in which the capacity to maintain alliances and work with others will be key.
In the other assessment, Rob Asghar rejects the notion of decline altogether, noting, among other reasons, that “today’s trajectory is not tomorrow’s destiny,” that American culture is uniquely conducive to growth and that we are more aware of our own flaws than of our competitors’.
Each of these analyses is persuasive in its way. Asghar is correct to direct our attention to the bygone days when we were instructed to prepare for submission to our emergent Japanese masters, who it turns out were instead incapable of letting anyone go out of business. Nye persuasively—more on this in a moment—notes the end of “the unipolar moment.” Meanwhile, the American culture of creative destruction, which both authors observe, positions the country for continued economic success.
But both also miss a larger question: not how much power America has, but how much power America needs.